Is Alice in Wonderland‘s Very Important (Street) Date Really That Important?

The latest battle in the war between movie studios trying to recapture the glory days of the home entertainment market and exhibitors trying to hold onto their theatrical business has, a bit surprisingly, revolved around Johnny Depp in a funny hat.

In the words of Paul Sweeting over at GigaOm Pro (subscription required), Disney managed to pick itself a real fight with exhibitors over the distribution of its upcoming Tim Burton/Johnny Depp Alice in Wonderland reboot, specifically with regards to its decision to shorten its DVD window from four months to three months. With the change, the Alice DVD is poised to hit retailer shelves this June.

It was mostly international exhibitors who started crying foul over the decision — the UK-based Odeon declared they would boycott, while Vue Entertainment only agreed to show the film after being assured by Disney that the Alice DVD window was an experiment, and would be an exception to the rule. In the States, AMC Entertainment is also still negotiating with Disney about the decision.

Sweeting argues that timing doesn’t matter in this new world of DVD distribution, because consumers find physical media overpriced in comparison with rental options from Redbox and Netflix, and bringing up the release date won’t change their minds on that score. Me? I disagree, because for films with the potential to perform well both at the box office and Blockbusters, delaying the DVD release can mean creating greater anticipation. And the thing is, Disney agrees with me.

I’m referring to the Disney Vault, Disney’s program for limiting the release of its classic works of animation, including Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Beauty and the Beast and Fantasia. By limiting the distribution of some of its most beloved films, it’s created an artificial scarcity around those titles, making people wait YEARS to buy them once again, and happy to do so. And that’s for movies that consumers may already own, just in a more primitive format.

(If you’ve never seen it, by the way, TV Funhouse’s take on the Disney Vault is priceless.)

The major catch, of course, is that by limiting the distribution, piracy might increase — after all, a tech-savvy parent confronted by a child screaming to watch The Lion King (which has been in the Vault since 2005, and does not appear to be slated for a Blu-ray release anytime soon) probably won’t care too much about copyright infringement after a certain point.

In addition, this strategy really only works if the film’s worth watching, and while one early review celebrated the film’s visual style, the reviewer seemed pretty unimpressed with the scripting and performances. Which might make Tim Burton’s reimagining worth $15 for an IMAX 3-D experience, but maybe not $30 for the Blu-ray release three — or nine — months later.

Related GigaOm Pro Content (subscription required): Disney Picks a Fight With Alice

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